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CURRENT ISSUE:  March 7, 2005VOL. 43, NO. 5Oakland, CA

Bush budget would fund school vouchers

By Bruce Alpert
Religion News Service

WASHINGTON—Early in his first term, President Bush proposed a plan to provide federally financed vouchers to give low-income parents across the nation the option of sending their children to private schools, including religious ones.

Faced with strong opposition from Democrats and teachers unions, Bush settled for a $13 million pilot program limited to families in Washington, D.C. That move seemed to sidetrack the issue as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, war in Iraq and political battles took center stage.

But in a little-noticed section of his 2006 budget proposal, Bush is resurrecting his request for a nationwide $50 million “Choice Incentive Fund.” The idea, aides said, is to give private groups across the United States the chance to compete for federal money for programs that give parents more educational choices.

“This is exactly the time to do this,” said Mike Petrilli, associate assistant secretary of education. “The two big reform ideas today are parental choice and accountability, and they work together.”

With opposition still strong, prospects for Bush’s proposal may depend on the success of the pilot effort: Washington’s School Choice Incentive Program, the nation’s first federally financed voucher program. It will be some time before the congressionally mandated assessments of Washington’s program are completed for the first 1,023 children to get vouchers worth as much as $7,500 each.

Interviews with parents and school officials reveal positives as well as potential problem areas. Some parents said that in the five months since their children entered private schools using the vouchers, they are reading better and, just as important, looking at school not as a chore but as a productive and even enjoyable experience.

But federal officials were embarrassed when an anti-voucher group uncovered internal Education Department e-mails discussing potential negative reaction to the fact that 187 vouchers went to students already enrolled in private schools.

People for the American Way, a voucher opponent, said one of the problems with the Washington program is that the city’s top schools are still out of reach for many poor families because the vouchers cover only a portion of the tuition, or because of the stringent admission standards.
This, the group said in a report released this month, gives credence to fear that vouchers will cherry-pick the best students from public schools.

By far the largest participant in the new voucher program is the Archdiocese of Washington with its 24 schools. It has enrolled 600 voucher students, 60 percent of the voucher total.

“The perception that we just take the smart kids just isn’t so,” said Mary Anne Stanton, executive director of the Center City Consortium, which operates 13 of the archdiocesan schools. “Our kids aren’t any smarter, but they are motivated and their parents are motivated. And that is a blessing and an edge.”

Stanton said the other big concern expressed by voucher opponents is that religious schools will proselytize, or discriminate against children who don’t conform to the church’s religious beliefs. That’s disproved, she said, by the 68 percent of the students at her 13 schools who are non-Catholic.

She quoted Cardinal James Hickey, the retired archbishop of the Washington Archdiocese, as saying, “We have schools because we are Catholic, not because the youngsters are Catholic.”


President George W. Bush speaks at a Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Leadership Conference at a Washington hotel March 1, 2005.

Photo: REUTERS/Jason Reed


 


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